Scotland should consider moving towards a school qualifications system in which teacher judgment supported by “some assessment” has a greater role, according to Glasgow Council’s executive director of education.

Maureen McKenna said a “big debate” about exams would be required and questioned the current tendency to maintain broadly stable pass rates despite fluctuations arising from differences in ability between pupil cohorts.

“The first debate that needs to be held is around assessment,” she told The Herald. “Why do we have a system where everything hinges on that final exam?”

Her remarks come amid anger over the alternative certification model (ACM), which was designed to allow teachers to make decisions about a candidate’s results based on evidence of “demonstrated attainment”. However, the second lockdown significantly shortened the time available for gathering such information, with many pupils left to endure a treadmill of tests after schools reopened.

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Moves toward reform are already under way. This month, Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced a wide-ranging review of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and standards body Education Scotland. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which will today publish a landmark report on Curriculum for Excellence, has also been commissioned to consider assessment processes.

Ms McKenna stressed she did not have a “firm view” on what a new arrangement should look like but added: “I think there’s a greater role for teachers’ judgment, and that teachers’ judgment could be based on your knowledge of the young people, backed up by some assessment information.

“We need a middle ground so it’s not about continuous assessment and lots of tests. It’s about the teacher’s knowledge of the child. Because if you’re with that child four or five hours a week, you know them inside out. So you would be able to judge whether it’s an A or a B, and could use some assessments to support that position. But it’s decided by the professional.”

Maureen McKenna says a Maureen McKenna is Executive Director of Education at Glasgow City Council.

Ms McKenna highlighted how results in previous years contrasted dramatically with teacher estimate-based grades in 2020.

“For National 5 maths, for the previous years up to 2019, regardless of how many people were presented, about 67 or 68 per cent got an A to C,” she said.

“In 2020, 80% of those presented got an A to C. Why is that? Are we suggesting that 14% difference is wrong, that those 14% hadn’t got it? Or could it possibly be because SQA norm references the pass mark so it’s always about two-thirds or so that pass?

“I’m not suggesting one’s right and one’s wrong. I’m suggesting there’s a question in there to ask about why, all the previous years, the pass rate sat at about 67, 68% and then suddenly, when it went to teachers’ judgment, it went to 80%.”

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She added: “I think the results day has become a media circus.

“The media being the media, they always look for some wee poke. They say, the percentage pass rate has moved from 72% to 71.3%, shock, horror, probe. But that doesn’t tell you anything.

“It doesn’t tell you more young people than ever before are getting qualifications. It just tells you the SQA marking team decided to put the band [ie grade boundary] there. If every year 66% of pupils get it but, last year, it was 80%, I don’t have an answer to that – but it does seem a bit quirky, doesn’t it? I’m just asking, who’s right?

“Schools have fluctuations in grades because you will have good cohorts of young people and, sometimes, not so good cohorts of young people. I just think if teachers are highly professional, highly skilled, why are we questioning their judgment?

“We trust them to teach our children. Why are we saying they’re not good enough for the exam at the end?”

Maureen McKenna says a SQA Chief Executive Fiona Robertson.

Fiona Robertson, chief examiner and chief executive of the SQA, said: “Our focus just now is on supporting our young people to get the qualifications they deserve this year.

“However, the experience of the pandemic is giving rise to a debate about the model of learning and teaching in our schools and colleges – and the assessment and qualifications which supports that. As chief examiner, I welcome that.

“We must ensure our qualifications system is credible and fair to all learners, no matter where they live in Scotland, and meets the needs of learners and the labour market, now and in the future.

“The reviews announced by the Cabinet Secretary and any follow-up to the OECD reviews will give us all the chance to have that debate.”

She added: “National standards are the cornerstone of our qualifications system and that means an A Grade in Glasgow should be the same as an A Grade anywhere else, and so on.

“That’s why we have a national qualifications system. We don’t norm reference pass rates in Scotland, as Maureen suggests.”